Image: Vallecillo
Juan Manuel Villasenor  /  AP
A man crosses a street in the nearly deserted border town of Vallecillo, Mexico on June 16. Officials had to beg residnets to staff the town's polling places for the hotly contested presidential election.
updated 6/29/2006 7:09:38 PM ET 2006-06-29T23:09:38

This town of farmers and cattle ranchers has about 1,300 registered voters. But officials had to spend weeks begging residents before they found the 14 people needed to staff its two polling places on Sunday.

Days before the hotly contested presidential election, observers say voting sites across the country still lack enough people to provide a crucial first defense against a return to Mexico’s fraudulent electoral past. Many towns have been depleted, their able adults now in the United States. Of those who remain, many simply refused, saying they couldn’t afford to miss work.

As of June 22, 11 percent of the country’s 130,555 polling places were missing one or more poll workers, according to Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan citizens group that based its findings on data from Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute. IFE officials did not respond to repeated requests by The Associated Press for comment on the problem.

The race is neck-and-neck between former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, and Felipe Calderon, a former energy secretary from outgoing President Vicente Fox’s conservative National Action Party.

Running in third place is Roberto Madrazo, the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until its stunning loss to Fox six years ago.

Fraud permitted in earlier elections
During the PRI’s seven decades in power, poll workers often turned a blind eye to vote-buying and fraud in elections that were merely symbolic acts, ushering in leaders chosen in advance by the outgoing president.

But in 1990, four years after an election many decried as rigged, IFE was created as a self-governing electoral body, with a mission that includes selecting and training poll workers. It laid the groundwork for Fox’s historic victory in 2000 by guarding against fraudulent practices and educating voters about their rights.

Unlike other countries where poll workers are volunteers, Mexico drafts much of its election day staff, in a process similar to jury duty in the United States. This year, IFE began tapping registered voters born in January or February and whose last name started with the letter W. Those who take part receive $17 — more than four times the minimum wage.

But those who refuse to participate can’t be penalized.

In 2000 — when poll workers helped ensure Fox’s victory — Mexicans were excited about working for the IFE and officials had no problem drafting poll workers.

This year, the voters are apathetic, Civic Alliance’s Hugo Almada complained.

“People have lost interest in the election, and that shows up in trying to find poll workers,” he said.

More than 900,000 workers will be needed to set up polling places and check voter rosters Sunday across Mexico, and even some of those who have agreed to help out may not show up, forcing electoral authorities to grab the first few voters and draft them into service. Almada worries that these sudden draftees won’t have the training to properly distribute and count ballots or guard against suspicious practices. In some past elections, party militants have paid voters to sneak unmarked ballots out of the polls so they could mark the ballot themselves.

Residents leaving for the U.S.
In Vallecillo, a cluster of homes and businesses hugging a highway to the Texas border, authorities spent weeks trying to track down poll workers. Because so many of the town’s residents have migrated to the United States, and the rest refused to take part, they had to keep moving down the list of registered voters to find candidates.

Raul Mercado, a 33-year-old road worker, cited a recent knee injury as he begged off.

“I would like to be there, to see how things are happening,” he said. “But I already told them not to count on me.”

State electoral official Urbano Trevino said the problem is prevalent across northern Nuevo Leon state, where many residents often find work in the Houston area.

“We’ve had to really fight to find people, because in some communities, many residents are in the United States,” he said. In the nearby community of Matatenas, only two of 12 possible poll workers were still in Mexico.

Enedelia Zuniga, 19, was one of the few who accepted immediately and plans to staff a polling station in Vallecillo, about 60 miles from the Texas border.

“I’m happy to do it because this is a service to my community,” Zuniga said. “I also think it’s important to be there, to make sure no one cheats.”

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